We know schools are busy places, especially at this time of year. I haven’t missed the irony of Mental Health Awareness Week also being SATs week in primary schools.
And in secondary schools it is now external exam season and teachers are frantically trying to do last minute intervention, coaxing students to do revision and, in some instances, actually finish off the course!
This is why mental health first aid training is so important. Ensuring staff have the appropriate training gives a school the expertise and knowledge base to put effective stress reduction strategies into place and to intervene earlier and more effectively when colleagues and students are struggling.
So – here are my top tips for stress reduction:
1. Notice how full your “stress container” is
This is an essential part of keeping yourself well. We need to be able to recognise when things are building up to a critical level so we can employ some coping mechanisms. All too often we don’t pay enough attention to ourselves. The analogy of a “stress bucket” is also good to share with students- ask them what is in theirs- it’s a good way of finding out information you might be unaware of.
2. Begin self-care at home
Make sure you get enough sleep. This is essential! We all need different amounts. Research suggests that it is a good idea to avoid screens (phones, tablets, and laptops) and exercise just before bed, but everyone is different and you know what works for you.
3. Take mini breaks in work
This is easier said than done in schools, but constantly sitting down really isn’t good for physical or mental health. So – get up, walk around and have a stretch every half hour or so to keep the blood moving. Even if you exercise regularly, prolonged sitting is not good for the heart. Rather than emailing a colleague, go and have a conversation- connect and chat!
Mindfulness is also incredibly powerful – take 5 minutes to close your eyes and breathe deeply. Deep breathing increases the oxygen in the blood, improving mental clarity.
4. Ease up on the coffee
We all know that caffeine is a stimulant and can be addictive, but did you know that excessive consumption is also linked to many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and headaches?
5. Get active!
Exercise is the BEST medicine. I run nearly every morning- it helps my mood, it wakes me up and on days I don’t do it I don’t feel as positive. It doesn’t have to be running though- simply moving improves your mood. It can be walking, yoga, cycling- anything!
Doctors suggest getting active as part of any recovery plan- be that for mental or physical health. In Greater Manchester we have launched “The Daily Mile” and it is having a huge impact on teachers and children alike. In my own trust – Bright Futures Educational Trust – we have really embraced this.
6. Choose your attitude
A positive outlook on life and work can reduce stress- you have a choice whether to view complexity as fun and see problems as challenges to be enjoyed. We all have a choice how we ‘frame’ events, relationships and tasks. Work place conflict does happen but do try to be empathetic and remember, we never know what is really going on for someone. It is helpful if we try to assume that people are coming from a place of genuine kindness and trying to do the right thing.
7. Switch off
We might be in a culture of working evenings and some of the weekend but is that self-inflicted or an expectation? Challenge your thinking and take time off. You have the autonomy to manage your own work life balance- you don’t need permission to do this. Taking a break to do something you enjoy can give you new perspective and energy.
In the past I have become really exhausted by placing unrealistic expectations on myself. But I’m more sensible these days and family comes first. I love my job, but I know in order to do it well I need to stay healthy and energised.
8. Encourage school leaders to make wellbeing a priority
This doesn’t mean making all staff do yoga or a spin class! This is about culture, ethos and relationships. It is also about ensuring that colleagues look out for each other. At my school, my team and I often go for walking meetings- it’s a great way to talk and get fresh air at the same time. Feeling part of a team is crucial- we all need someone to talk to.
Coaching is embedded at my trust and this is really powerful in terms of building a supportive culture. Good HR underpins wellbeing and being able to get quality advice is essential. Good training for staff, such as the Mental Health First Aid programme also underpins work place wellbeing.
Lisa Fathers is Director of Teaching School and Partnerships at The Alliance for Learning- based at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (@AGGSchool).
Lisa is also a National Trainer for Mental Health First Aid England (@MHFAEngland) and represents the education sector on the Greater Manchester Health and Wellbeing Board. She is currently leading the “Mentally Healthy Schools” pilot across the whole of Greater Manchester, which brings together MHFA, the Youth Sport Trust (@YouthSportTrust), Place2Be (@Place2Be) & 42nd Street (@42ndStreetmcr) in an innovative approach to wellbeing in schools.